Entries in Science (20)


Art and Emotion

I've dealt with some issues surrounding aesthetics here in the past, and my approach has at least partially been biological and socio-cultural: asking what external reasons there are for the granting of aesthetic merit to certain artworks as opposed to others.

However another approach is also valuable: asking what internal reasons there might be for artistic approval and disapproval. One central, internalist topic has to do with emotional response. Speaking very roughly, an artwork that elicits a strong emotional reaction, or perhaps a strong emotional reaction with certain characteristics, is seen as superior to one that, as the saying goes, "leaves us cold". Now, of course one worthwhile way to go here is to begin to ask, "What sorts of emotional responses are the right ones?" And perhaps we can come up with some initial, rough criteria: in order to be a particularly good work of art, the emotion shouldn't include strong antipathy towards the work. Now, a sly, budding art critic may disagree with such a claim: perhaps reactions of distaste, disgust, dislike, and so on are examples that "épater la bourgeoisie", and as such, perhaps we should be suspicious of such strong antipathic emotional responses. But nevertheless I think most of us would agree that there is some scope of strong dislike that includes artworks that really are worthless by any reasonable aesthetic merit. That said, it doesn't really matter for what follows whether we make such a move or not.

Second, we may say that in order to be the right sort of emotional response, the emotion must be somehow complex. After all, a simple horror, humor, or romance film, a propaganda piece, or even pornography can elicit very strong emotions without having any real aesthetic merit. One typical response of the self-styled sophisticate is to claim to be unmoved in the presence of such works, of course. Although I am highly dubious of such poses, nevertheless it also doesn't really matter for what follows whether we accept them or not.

The question I prefer to get at is more basic: why should it matter that a piece elicit strong emotions? What's so important about emotions? Why should a piece that makes us cry, laugh, or feel terribly emotionally confused be somehow superior to one that does not, or that, say, makes us think of the color blue or feel particularly hungry?

I don't claim to have anything like a full answer to this question. I think it's enough to raise it as an object of genuine concern. However I do have something at least approaching one plausible explanation why emotion might be important in art criticism.

Emotion and Recall

When we think back on the artworks we have seen in our lives, which ones tend to stick out? A simple answer is that it's the ones that caused the deepest emotional impact in us. I'd argue this goes much more for art critics, whose job involves interacting with large numbers of similar pieces on a regular basis. In the fullness of time, they all tend to blend together; the ones that stick out are the ones that caused the deepest emotional impact. (And that may have had other, associated characteristics, like originality, and so on).

It's often said that time is the greatest art critic of all: often the pieces that were beloved by this generation of critics prove forgettable to the next, when seen in a new light. Once again, the operant cause here may at least partially have to do with emotional impact over time. That is particularly so if the emotion of the work became confused with disgust in the first critics who saw it.

At any rate, over time memory comes to the fore in internal determinations of artistic merit: the best pieces are said to be "memorable". Less worthy pieces are, in a word, "forgettable".

Now I think we have the framework to bring the two together: emotion and memory. To put it simply, the artworks that are "forgettable" just tend to be those that "leave us cold". Scientific studies have shown conclusively that we have better and longer recall of emotional events than we do of ones that are not emotion-laden. This, of course, makes evolutionary sense: our emotions are tailored to arise during times that tend to be evolutionarily critical. We are frightened or hate filled when we feel threatened. We are aroused when we sense a potential mate. We feel love surrounding mating, child rearing, and in-group bonding. Humor is a more complex case, however it is also one not typically associated with great artwork. Nevertheless times of emotional arousal are also times it would be good to underline in our long-term memory traces: they likely involve processes it would be useful to come back to at a later date. They may, for the same reason, be seen and encoded as particularly valid or truthful, whether in fact they are or not.

If this is so, then the evolutionarily useful link between emotion and memory plays a crucial role in our aesthetic evaluation. It may not be that there is any particular reason why emotional artworks are aesthetically better than ones that are not, apart from the mere fact that because they elicit strong emotions they are easier to recall at a later date.

I believe similar processes may occur as well with narrative events: they are more easily encoded and hence recalled at a later date. Emotional narratives, therefore, may be particularly well suited to be taken as artistically valuable: thus our Homers, Sophocleses, Shakespeares, Dantes, Cervanteses, Lady Murasakis, and so on.

Some Concerns

Although the creation of aesthetic merit out of evolutionarily attuned memory and other allied causes may be a relatively benign phenomenon, there is still room for concern. Insofar as the mind tends to recall such emotion-laden narratives more easily, and imbue them with a validity they may lack, we may be prone to learning and recalling false lessons. It's all too easy for any of us, from the most humble up to the most powerful, to put ourselves into easily recalled, emotion-laden narratives from history, believing they provide lessons which they may not.

If in fact emotion is an enemy of clear seeing, then relying on emotion to provide us with our most salient data is a recipe for promoting only confusion, falsehood, and ignorance. No doubt this overstates the case to some degree, but once again, perhaps it's enough to raise it as an object of genuine concern.


Sean Carroll on Naturalism

Here's an excellent Rationally Speaking podcast with physicist Sean Carroll, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, and writer Julia Galef on the philosophical question of naturalism. I'm a big fan of Carroll's clarity at getting across physics, having watched a couple of his lecture series on The Great Courses. He's one of those few, rare physicsts at the top of his game who is willing to get into the deeper philosophical issues in a way that is both nuanced and compelling. That's to say, he knows his philosophy.

Carroll's book From Eternity to Here is an intriguing story about the arrow of time. I recall hearing back in grad school how time's arrow could be understood as a matter of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I'm still not quite convinced that the story Carroll tells doesn't smuggle in the arrow of time somewhere: after all, one typically understands the Second Law in terms of entropy increasing into the future. Of course, stated that way, the Second Law assumes an arrow of time, so the most it can do is to explain why the future looks the way it does compared to the past, rather than explaining the arrow per se.

But it's definitely all food for thought.


NASA Videos of the Sun

Worth a little under four minutes of your time: incredible images of our Sun.

Hat tip to my brother, Matt!


The Pale Blue Dot

... and another video that's not to be missed. This is a wonderful animated tribute to Sagan's Pale Blue Dot, with Carl's own voice reading the words.

Another hat tip to Forbidden Planet


The Inner Life of the Cell

Well, the video I linked to in this blog post before was from the BBC, and apparently it's been taken down. Still, here is a great eight-minute piece out of Harvard that is well worth a look:



Einstein on the Beach

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the last New York performance of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's masterwork opera Einstein on the Beach. It's a rare thing since the production requires both an orchestra capable of performing Glass's meditative, minimalist music and a cast capable of performing Wilson's intricate, ritualistic direction. And famously it lasts over four hours without intermission, which can be a trial for audience members unused to non-narrative works.

Einstein is a successful melding of art and science, because it doesn't attempt to be too literal about the science. It's conceived as a progression of dream-scapes; there is no real dialogue. What words one hears are either digressive, strange monologues or repetitive strings of numbers and solfège symbols. At first this approach mystifies. But then, isn't it a valid, indeed precise, interpretation of the hermeticism of scientific dialogue, and its requirement for quantity and measurement? Singers count beats, name notes; it may seem overly literal, except that's just the point. The rest of the dialogue prods us to dream.

The opera proceeds towards its crescendo in several, apparently unrelated scenes or vignettes. Wilson's staging re-uses visual cues, such as clocks, moons, circles, compasses and a grand bar of white light, like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film that came out only eight years before the opera first premiered). The bar has several other resonances: its first appearance in the "Train" sequences clearly represent one of the bolts of lightning Einstein used in his famous thought experiment on special relativity, breaking simultaineity.

Later the bar appears on a darkened stage as a solitary line on the floor, that slowly rises to the upright position and then ascends offstage. This representation (apparently confusing to one recent New York Times reviewer) has profound representational possibilities: my preferred is the so-called "Doomsday Clock" kept by the Bulletin of Atomic scientists since 1947. As the minute hand ascends to the vertical, nuclear war comes closer to hand. The white bar, a simple and pure symbol, takes on immense resonance. And clocks, time in general, are themes that both Glass and Wilson refer to endlessly.

The bar may also represent a missile raising to the launch position and then ascending into the air. This melds with the next scene, which is of a rocket ascending. Then the opera reaches its crescendo ("Spaceship") in a darkened, mechanical atmosphere reminiscent of one of the grand scenes in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Lang's MetropolisWilson's Einstein


In the 2012 version, the Spaceship scene included a devilish character who appeared to be directing the workers, clarifying the scene's sinister overtones. And at the end a scrim dropped before it with a 1960s era image of the effects of a hydrogen-bomb blast. I don't recall either devil or bomb-image from the last time I'd seen the opera, back in the 1980s. Perhaps my memory fails me. Either way, given the obscure nature of the opera's symbology, I felt these were welcome pointers.

They also served to deepen the final scene, with its strange and otherworldly turn to love, and one of the great final phrases: "fervent osculation."

It's a piece not to miss for any with an appreciation of Glass's minimalist music or Wilson's expressionist stagecraft. The piece is different enough to be unique in its impact. I believe it to be one of the greatest late 20th century operas, however only time will tell how it fits into the repertory. It's unlikely that many will attempt to copy Wilson's technically demanding direction. But is there Einstein without Wilson? If not, future performances will likely be limited to devotees. And that would be a shame. For the opera, difficult and demanding though it is, deserves a wide audience.


Science Denial Comic

Here's a wonderful, short didactic comic on recent social and political science-denial movements, by Darryl Cunningham. It's short and pithy, one of the best examples of clear thinking I've seen. All the better that it's in a visual medium like comics; I hope it gets wide distribution. You should read the whole thing!

And while you're at it, don't miss his piece on homeopathy!

Tips of the hat to Tom Spurgeon and Gary Randolph.



Nature by Numbers

This is a favorite of mine, a short film by Cristóbal Vila and Etérea Studios called Nature by Numbers. Now that's the way science should be shown.


Apollo 11 Launch in Ultra Slow-Mo HD

With fascinating commentary. Wow ...!


Auroras Over Norway

Auroras are some of the most beautiful and scientifically interesting natural phenomena. They alight when waves of charged particles from Earth's magnetic field lines, energized by stellar winds, crash through the upper atmosphere.

Hat tip to Astronomy Picture of the Day.